Fluoride Action Network

Councilman’s Initiative Targets Mobil’s Use of Hydrofluoric Acid

Source: Los Angeles Times | Times Staff Writer
Posted on June 24th, 1989
Industry type: Oil Refineries

Los Angeles County election officials formally certified Wednesday that Torrance City Councilman Dan Walker’s initiative to curb the use of hydrofluoric acid at the Mobil Oil refinery has qualified for the ballot.

Torrance City Clerk John Bramhall said he was notified by the county registrar-recorder’s office that a random sample of 500 signatures on Walker’s petitions found that 91.2% were registered voters.

Based on that sample, county officials estimated that 8,938 of the 9,801 signatures submitted by Walker this month are valid. He had needed 7,241. “On that basis, it is sufficient to qualify,” Bramhall said.

Walker’s measure would severely restrict the amount of acutely toxic hydrofluoric acid that can be stored at any industrial site in Torrance.

The initiative would limit storage to 250 gallons, a fraction of the more than 29,000 gallons of highly corrosive acid usually stored at the Mobil Oil refinery.

A thunderous explosion and two-day fire at the refinery in November, 1987, was caused by an excess of the acid in a unit that produces unleaded gasoline.

Walker, who has argued that Torrance residents are concerned that the chemical poses a safety risk, said he was thrilled by the voters’ response to his direct mail appeal.

“I am positive the initiative will pass,” he said. “When it is done, we will have a far safer community.”

But Mobil spokesman Jim Carbonetti took a decidedly different view. “The signatures are not surprising in that most people are willing to put things on the ballot,” Carbonetti said. “That doesn’t necessarily mean that it will pass after the voters have more information and time to think about the issue. We will just continue our efforts to communicate with the community.”

Mobil last week launched a 24-week advertising campaign aimed at improving the refinery’s image in Torrance.

The Torrance City Council must now decide whether to adopt the measure as written or to put it on a special election ballot in November or the regular city ballot in March.

“I want the people of the city of Torrance to be able to resolve this matter in the fastest way possible,” Walker said.

He called on his colleagues to put the measure before voters in November, when a Torrance school board election will be held, instead of waiting until March. “There is no reason to delay this another four months.”

Walker expressed the hope that his colleagues would consider adopting the measure outright since thousands of Torrance voters signed his initiative. “I sincerely hope that they will look at it with an open mind,” he said.

Urged Not to Sign

But Mayor Katy Geissert said she has seen no sign that her colleagues are inclined to adopt an initiative that they urged voters not to sign.

In an open letter to voters in April, Walker’s colleagues accused him of using “questionable political tactics” to advance his own political career. Council members said Walker, who wants to run for the Legislature, plotted to “capitalize politically on the community’s fears” about the refinery. Walker used an estimated $50,000 in campaign funds to finance the initiative drive.

Geissert said she would rather see the measure on the March ballot to spare the expense of a special election and to allow the city’s legal staff more time to work on a lawsuit that the city filed in April seeking to have the Mobil refinery declared a public nuisance.

The mayor, an outspoken critic of Walker, said Torrance taxpayers will have to pay to defend the initiative if Mobil challenges it in court.

Nonetheless, Geissert said Walker’s initiative has “a very good likelihood of passing” because Torrance residents “are very much concerned” about the possibility of a catastrophic accident at the refinery. “They are worried about the health and safety issue.”

‘Would Add Credence’

Walker said a public vote to support his measure would “add a great deal of credence to the city’s position” in court.

Concern about the potential danger posed by hydrofluoric acid grew late in 1987 after a series of incidents, beginning with an accident in October at a Marathon refinery in Texas. The Torrance explosion and fire followed. And in December, an environmental group released the results of oil industry-sponsored tests that showed that releases of hydrofluoric acid were more dangerous than previously thought.

However, a risk assessment conducted by consultants for Mobil concluded that use of hydrofluoric acid poses almost no risk to Torrance residents.

The city has questioned the adequacy of that study. Walker, who has rejected the study out of hand, warns that a 1,000-gallon spill of hydrofluoric acid could threaten the lives of tens of thousands of residents near the refinery.

“This initiative was the first step in controlling what we all see as a major hazard in the community,” he said. “This is the one chemical that could impact the lives of tens of thousands of people who live miles away from this refinery.”

Expects to Be Outspent

Walker said he expects that Mobil will easily outspend him in the coming battle for the votes of Torrance residents.

After conducting a public opinion poll and meeting with community leaders recently, Mobil found that “we needed to do a better job of communicating with the community,” Carbonetti said.

The new advertising campaign featuring refinery employees discussing their concern about health and safety and their contributions to the community is one of the ways that Mobil plans to communicate with residents.

“There are many other things coming up,” Carbonetti said, but did not offer details.